Approaching my third year, I feel much like I did when I was a teenager; desperate to leave home, live my own life, cook my own dinner and generally make my own decisions. In terms of chemistry, this means that I’m able to work independently in the lab, I’ve got plenty of ideas that I’d love to try out and I have my own clear plan for my project, but I’m under someone else’s roof, so I have to play by their rules.
I’m not trying to say that any one approach is correct. There are many. Perhaps it’s only fair that we do as we are told, after all it’s the supervisor’s ideas and grant proposals and plain existence that allow us to be there in the first place. Are we not, as his group, simply the hands that put his ideas into practise? And if we have ideas of our own, well, there’s always the weekend...
Group leaders, I sympathise, I really do. I know that you work hard and that the job can be stressful and tiring. I know that supervising students is frustrating when you only get half the story. I know that when it comes to a choice between finishing off a big paper and reading a 350 page thesis for your student, there’s a clear winner. I also know that many of you embrace the student-supervisor relationship and pour into it your support, energy and enthusiasm. I have seen brilliant PhD students being taken out for dinner by their supervisory team on graduation, and champagne corks popping for published papers. I have also seen a student falling apart from exhaustion, having not eaten or slept properly for days, pushed for the sake of a deadline that was never going to be met.
Zen teaches that the “worst” in life can be the most valuable because it has the most lessons to teach. That’s only true if we allow ourselves to learn. I’m trying to put this into practise with my summer student. I let her know when she’s doing something well and that I’ve noticed when she’s particularly skilful in the lab (her columns rock
). I try to sound positive and be helpful, even when I’m actually in a horrific mood. I want her to feel that she’s making progress and learning. I’m firm when she makes the same mistake twice, but not angry. I really want her to enjoy the experience of working in a research lab, the way I did when I started. And I want to prove to myself that the carrot really can be more valuable than the stick.